Book Review: Psycho

Psycho (1959) by Robert Bloch

Wouldn’t even harm a fly…

Story

Mary Crane is on the run. After casually stealing forty grand from her workplace she concocts a plan to pay off her fiancé’s debt and drives to the fictional town of Fairvale, California in order to meet up with him. During a stormy night she takes a wrong turn off of the highway and finds herself renting a room at the Bates Motel, an out-of-the-way establishment run by the shy yet intelligent Norman Bates and his reclusive mother. Mary ends up missing and after some time her sister Lily, fiancé, and Milton Arbogast, a private detective hired by her workplace to track down both Mary and the stolen money, begin an intertwining search for her.

Review

If I had one word to describe 1959’s Psycho it would be gripping. The novel isn’t terribly long, you can finish it in a sitting or two, yet its non-stop thrills and twists make it quite hard to put down. If you’re a fan of classic cinema you’re probably already aware of the basic plot and that famous shower scene but don’t let that put you off the novel, it stands well in its own right as entertainment and offers a deeper insight into its characters and the thoughts of Norman Bates.

The language used is clear and down-to-earth, making it easy to visualize events in the novel and giving the characters simplistic yet relatable qualities. Lila for example is concerned for her missing sister and is tormented by thoughts of worst-case scenarios, Sam is Mary’s recent fiancé and his feelings for her are challenged when he learns of her thievery yet is genuinely worried for her. The focal characters of the novel are Mary Crane (Marrion in the movies) and Norman Bates. We spend a couple of chapters with Mary that serve to dive a bit into her background and the reasoning behind her stealing the money. We learn she is in her late twenties and has a particular distaste towards her money-hungry boss at the Lowery Real Estate Agency. She’s had a particularly bland life so when the opportunity of pocketing forty thousand dollars presents itself she takes it, she later regrets her decision and decides to turn herself in but goes missing before she can do so. Norman Bates is the proprietor and caretaker of the Bates Motel. He’s an odd personality and has an unnatural relationship with his controlling and dominating mother, despite him being a grown man. Both he and his mother live in a very old-fashioned house beside the Motel. The narration alternates from the viewpoints of Mary, Norman, and those in search of Mary after her disappearance.

My one major issue with the novel is its ending or at least part of the ending. Once it switches to ‘analysis mode’ to explain away the ins and outs of what happened I think it loses its nuance and could have worked just as well without this. The closing chapters of the novel felt like a last-minute rush to get in a lot of background and exposition quickly and immediately take you out of the built-up and tense conclusion of the previous chapter.

Psycho was quite the decent read. I didn’t have much expectation before reading it, I’d seen bits and pieces of Hitchcock’s movie and had a general idea of the plot and characters. I was pleasantly surprised how it mixed tension and character building without leaning too heavily on one over the other and I particularly enjoyed how the narration switched between the viewpoints of the characters. If you haven’t read the novel already, even if you’ve seen the films, I can easily recommend you give Psycho a try, it has a lot of thrills, twists and turns, and intrigue for such a relatively short novel and was well worth picking up.

~Giuseppe Gillespie March 2022

Verdict:

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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